A Snowfall Sleigh Ride for Lady Serena by Maggie M. Dallen

Chapter One

Serena sat in a sleigh,around her, a veritable winter wonderland. The Clydesdale pulling their sleigh shook his head, a shower of jingles erupting from the bells on his harness and reins.

Fresh snow covered the ground and trees, bathing them in white flakes that drifted from the branches and swirled through the air.

It might have been the most romantic scene she’d ever witnessed. Distantly, she realized this might be some girl’s fantasy. Coupled with the fact the man next to her was a handsome earl, she might have just stepped into some other person’s fairytale.

Except Serena didn’t particularly care for fanciful stories. She didn’t dream of dashing lords, or sleighs gliding through snow. She didn’t yearn for pretty compliments or romantic scenes.

What she liked best was to be on the horse’s back, pushing a stallion to a breakneck pace while the beauty of nature whizzed past her in a blur of colors as wind whipped through her hair. Not stuck in the passenger seat, with nothing to do but admire the slowly passing trees.

This? This was utterly boring. And the man next to her…even worse.

“Isn’t it lovely?” Lord Rushton murmured for the third time in as many minutes.

She attempted not to roll her eyes as she made some inane comment back. “Divine.” Had she used that word already? She couldn’t recall. She remembered using lovely. And she was certain she’d uttered, rapturous. If he asked the question one more time, she’d be completely out of adjectives.

She attempted to think of another, anticipating more dialogue on the beauty of the scene before them. But try as she might, she couldn’t come up with any more words. Except for boring, perhaps? Tedious? Dull? How would he respond if she said what she truly thought?

She cast a sidelong glance in his direction. It was tempting.

But she had to be nice.

Having lost their parents in quick succession, Serena and her sisters had decided that their brother needed help. He’d taken over the title, and all the responsibility with it, including launching four women into society.

It was too much.

And so they’d agreed, at least one of them needed to wed. Quickly. A good match with a titled lord who could help launch the sisters, ensure their success, and lift some of the weight from Tobias’s overburdened shoulders.

And Lord Rushton, dull as he may be, was the perfect sort of man for the task. His connections were excellent, his demeanor calm and patient, his title old and highly regarded. And best of all, he was in desperate need of a good dowry to infuse his coffers, which meant he’d be amenable to a quick match.

Up ahead, her eldest sister Sophie laughed as the Duke of Barton said something that Serena couldn’t hear. Had it actually been funny? Likely not.

Sophie was the one who was supposed to be paired with the earl currently riding next to Serena. And honestly, Sophie still intended to wed the man. They’d be well suited, Serena reflected. Sophie was far more romantic by nature, and though her sister professed not to want love, Serena was certain Sophie must. How could there be two girls in one family who didn’t give a whit about sappy drivel?

And the duke was out of the question as a candidate for marriage. Despite his interest in Serena’s sister, he was a known rake and had gone out of way to be offensive to Sophie their first night at this house party.

The only reason poor Sophie was riding with the cad now was because their Aunt Clara, the hostess of this gathering, had paired them together in a well-intentioned, but utterly misguided attempt at matchmaking.

But whatever the reason, it had left Serena to accompany the earl. It felt like those times she’d had to care for her younger cousins. Playing boring games like hide and seek and blind man’s bluff rather than doing something that was actually fun. She was a nursemaid minding her charge. Only, her charge was a grown man, and her goal was to keep him happy until her sister could disengage from the dastardly duke and sweep in and claim her place as Rushton’s countess.

“And the snow. Who could have predicted?” Lord Rushton went on. “How perfect for a Christmastide party.”

“Wonderful.” There! She’d found another adjective and just in time.

This ride couldn’t end fast enough. Then Sophie could return to the earl’s side, the duke could return to his rakish ways, and she could return to…well, something more exciting than this.

Which was anything, honestly. She’d had more fun darning socks.

From in the woods, a streak of orangish-grey darted out of the woods, directly in front of her sister’s sleigh. The duke yanked the reins, sending the sleigh off the track and up over the embankment.

Her sister near flew from the vehicle, bouncing wildly in the air. Fear clogged her throat as the Duke of Barton’s hand shot out and pulled Sophie back to safety. Serena covered her mouth with her hands, holding in a scream. She’d wanted excitement, but that…that was a bit too much.

She dropped her hands and looked over at the Earl of Rushton. “Your friend just attempted to kill my sister.” Without thinking, she knocked the earl on the arm with the flat of her hand.

In response, he pulled up on the reins, stopping their sleigh too. “I’m sure it was an accident. That fox came out of nowhere.”

She wrinkled her nose, looking back at her sister’s sleigh as they slid to a stop. Lord Rushton jumped from their vehicle and made his way back to the duke and Sophie. He started to push the carriage, his black Hessians sinking into the snow as he strained to move the trapped vehicle.

She had to give him credit on one account. His shoulders were awfully broad, and when he pushed like that he looked rather masculine and…

She forced herself to stop, turning to face forward again. Yes, he was handsome. With sandy hair and blue eyes, he had a kind look. Difficult, considering his chiseled jaw and straight nose. But then again, kindness was in the eyes, and his were often crinkled at the corners in the nicest way.

He’d been upfront and honest about his intentions, and his chivalry now was only matched by his gentlemanly behavior always.

He’d make a fine husband. If not for Sophie, then perhaps her second sister Sarah. At home in books and figures, she’d like a nice quiet man. Or perhaps their youngest sister, Samantha. As beautiful as she was refined, she’d make an excellent countess.

Any one of her sisters would be better placed in this sleigh than she.

Rushton managed to get the duke’s sleigh back into the track, and then he returned to her with a smile. “That was nearly a disaster.”

She nodded. “I’m surprised the duke even came out today. This doesn’t seem like his type of entertainment.” That, at least, she could understand. The duke seemed more at home playing cards or roaming the streets at night, not participating in wholesome sleigh rides. With his wickedly dark looks, he appeared a creature of the night.

And he didn’t behave much better. He’d made disparaging comments about Sophie the night before to a whole group of men. And though Sophie was doing a much better job than Serena at pretending to enjoy the duke’s company today, Serena was certain Sophie’s attention would return to Lord Rushton as soon as this painful ride was done.

“He’s doing all sorts of strange things in the name of getting to know your sister,” Rushton answered.

Serena didn’t believe him. But a niggle of fear did slide down her spine. Barton was not a man to be trusted. What if he hurt Sophie? What if he ruined her? Sophie, a wonderful woman and sister, was known to have a penchant for rakes.

Drat. She really needed to ingratiate herself to the Earl of Rushton. If Sophie didn’t marry Rushton herself, or worse, if Sophie landed in trouble with that awful excuse for a duke, well, Serena might have to step in and save her sisters.

The truth of the matter was that she’d likely have to marry at some point.

But it would have been nice if the man was a bit more interesting. “You know him better than me. All the same, he has an established reputation and he’s done little at this party to change that.”

Rushton grimaced then as he glanced back to look at the duke and her sister. She looked back too, only their sleigh wasn’t there.

She sucked in her breath. “Where are they?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is my sister…is she alone with that—that—that man?”

Rushton slowed their sleigh, his gaze still focused behind them. “I’m sure they just had trouble getting started. And after jumping the track, perhaps Lady Sophie was frightened by the speed of the sleigh?”

“Speed?” she asked, looking at him as though he’d gone daft. “If we go any slower, we’ll be sliding backwards.”

That made the corners of his mouth tilt up. “They’re not the fastest vehicles are they, these sleighs?”

She looked at him then, her interest piqued at last. “Do you ride, my lord?”

“When I must,” he answered. “I’m a better driver than I am a horseman.”

And they were back to the start. Nothing whatsoever in common. Well, that wasn’t true. They both potentially needed to wed.

She let out an inadvertent sigh, thinking about a lifetime of conversations that involved the scenery. If she married him, would she be expected to paint it?

Horror filled her mind as one of her hands clutched the side of the sleigh. She’d marry to save her sisters but she’d not, under any circumstances, paint landscapes. It was a bridge too far.

Those sorts of female accomplishments had always eluded her. She hated them and consequently had never excelled at anything feminine. Or perhaps, she’d never excelled, and so she hated them. But either way, she was ill-equipped to discuss fairytales, or idyllic landscapes, or heaven forbid, paint them.

“Are you all right?” Rushton asked. “Worried about Lady Sophie? I’m sure they’ll be around the bend at any moment.”

Sophie needed to round that bend, and then she needed to return to Lord Rushton’s side. Serena might allow the duke to ruin her instead of Sophie just so that she didn’t have to ride in this sleigh any longer.

The idea had merit.

Then she’d never have to marry at all. She’d be free to ride and shoot and hunt…

That made her pause. She did wish for freedom. She’d die a slow death being married to a man who expected her to fit into the mold society cast for women.

And Lord Rushton was the embodiment of society. Formal, careful, boring. She didn’t want a man like him.

But if she were being honest, she did still want to wed. She’d just always pictured a man who excelled at the same things she did and didn’t mind sharing them with her.

She glanced over at Rushton. He was not that man.

And if her sister didn’t show herself soon...

His Grace and Sophie rounded the corner, and Serena let out a sigh of relief.

Rushton looked over at her, a knowing smile on his face. “I told you.”

Her brows lifted. Serena had never been much for small talk, another female quality she lacked, and she couldn’t stand talking but not really saying anything any longer. “You did. And since you know so much, perhaps you can tell me. Why am I here with you and Sophie is back there with the duke? I thought you intended to court my sister.”

He visibly paled and Serena winced. She had a tendency to be overly brash. It was a trait she’d been attempting to hold back, but she hadn’t even made it the length of an hour. “I’m sorry, my lord, if I’ve offended.”

He shook his head. “No. It’s a valid question.” Then he drew in a breath. “I also expected to be courting Lady Sophie. She is the eldest and…” He winced. “Forgive me, I don’t need to explain to you.”

Finally, they were saying real things. She turned toward him. “Pray, continue.”

He gave a quick nod. “But Raith, that is His Grace, the Duke of Barton has taken an interest in your sister, and I had no particular connection to her so I thought perhaps you…”

Understanding dawned in her eyes. Sick dread in her stomach. “And so you thought to court me instead?”

He gave a tentative nod.

“But Lord Rushton,” she spread her hands out before her. “Whatever the duke’s interests might be, my sister’s interest continues to be in you.”

Rushton looked back, his brows lifted in disbelief. “Are you certain about that?”

Serena looked back too. And what she saw was the duke’s face set in a deep scowl. There was no way he was improving her sister’s opinion of him. “Yes. I’m certain.”

Rushton cleared his throat. “While I appreciate your commitment, I must be as frank with you as I’ve been with your aunt. My situation is quite desperate.”

She knew. And she felt for him. She truly did. “I understand.”

“So you also understand that with Sophie’s attention fixed on the duke, I must seek out another bride?”

Practical was one characteristic that Serena could appreciate. “I do.”

“Would it shock you to know that I’ve chosen you?”

She blinked back her surprise. “Me? Why?” She was the least likely Maxwell sister to make a good countess.

“I like,” his gaze flitted over her visage. “Your hair.”

“My hair?” Any number of women might have preened under that compliment. They’d also likely spent hours on a perfect coif. Serena never did. Her wild wind-streaked locks were frequently down or tied back in a simple ribbon. Which is how she knew he didn’t really mean it.

“It’s lovely.”

“Thank you.” She frowned, the two words sitting bitter in her mouth.

He gave a terse nod.

For Serena’s part, she didn’t know what else to say, and so she faced forward again so that she might…enjoy the scenery.

“Well?” he asked after a moment’s pause. “What do you say?”

“About what?” She looked at him again.

His mouth pressed into a tight line. “I’ve stated my intentions to pursue a match with you. I’m wondering if you accept them or not.”

He wished to court her? “But Sophie still plans…”

His hands tightened on the reins. “Let’s assume for a moment that I am right about Sophie and His Grace.” He turned toward her, easily maneuvering the sleigh with one hand as he looked at her. “We don’t have to have anything formal between us yet, but I’d like an assurance of some kind.”

Serena was well and truly trapped. As a person who enjoyed hunting, she could appreciate the successful way he’d manipulated her into this. Lulled her with talk of trees and shrubs and then sprung his trap.

She couldn’t very well say no. The duke’s past behavior and his current interest in Sophie made a match between Sophie and Rushton tenuous at best. And if anything untoward did happen between Sophie and the disreputable duke, Serena would need the Earl of Rushton. Her family would be depending on her then and marrying the earl would be her only option.

She shook off the thought. It would never come to that. Despite what he might know of His Grace’s intentions, she knew Sophie. Moreover, she knew Sophie’s temper. Her sister would never forgive the duke for his bad behavior, let alone agree to marry the man.

No, Sophie was nothing if not reliable. She would continue her pursuit of the earl just as soon as this interminable sleigh ride was over. She glanced back at Sophie in the carriage behind her with a niggle of doubt. But even if the worst happened, and Sophie was unable to make the match with Lord Rushton, there were other options. Perhaps the earl would meet Samantha and realize that her youngest sister would be far preferable.

Because she was.

Or perhaps he’d realize what a valuable asset Sarah would be as a countess with her quick mind.

The earl might be desperate for a match, but it was just a matter of time before he found it with one of her other sisters.

Until then, she just had to play along to ease his fears. “Very well,” she answered with a wave of her hand. “We have an informal agreement.”

“Good,” he answered with a relieved smile. But the kind wrinkles had disappeared from around his eyes. How curious.

“Smashing,” she added. And then she gave herself a mental pat on the back. She’d done it. She’d come up with another adjective.

She would need a great many if this engagement actually stuck.